There is something of a mixed blessing to repeatedly claiming the title as the most-Shazamed band in America.
On the up side, it means listeners are curious about a given band’s music. On the down side, it means people still don’t know who you are.
So it goes for Alaskan modern rockers Portugal. The Man, whose single “Feel It Still” has crossed over into pop radio, commercials, streaming playlists and other forums that offer lots of exposure, if not immediate name recognition.
“We’re the new Supertramp, where people are always asking, ‘Who is that?’” said guitarist Eric Howk. “You’ll see Twitter replies from Billboard and it’ll say ‘Big moves in the top 10. Chance The Rapper moves up, Jay Z moves down and Portugal. The Man slides in at number three’ and people are like, ‘Who?’”
It’s a new experience for the band that’s been together for more than a dozen years and been regarded as an indie rock favorite. Once firmly entrenched in the afternoon lineups of events like Austin City Limits Music Fest, they’re now performing around sunset to crowds that number more than 25,000 people.
And while they’re eager to introduce the crowd to other tracks on the new album “Woodstock” and its other seven releases, they know that – for now at least – “Feel It Still” is their calling card.
“It’s a really weird moment we’re having,” Howk said. “There was a feeling (the song) would do well, which is the reason why we called it our worldwide smash hit, to be tongue-in-cheek. But it still surprises us to hear stuff like that the (University of Southern California) marching band is using it now with a full production on the football field. That is insanity.”
It’s a mean feat to introduce unapologetically political and personal material to a festival crowd on a Sunday afternoon, so mark Jamila Woods down as an artist able to strike a balance between coffee house soul poetry and unmistakable issue statements.
It helped that the Chicago arts activist’s 45 minutes at the Tito’s tent was a stylistic journey, modulating between easy grooves and occasional funk rave ups to offer many flavors and ways for her poetic musings to go down.
As smooth as the band’s instrumental work and Woods’ velvet-smooth vocals that bring to mind Erykah Badu worked as a musical backdrop, putting an ear to the singer’s lyrics made the message hard to ignore.
On unreleased track “Giovanni” – which she debuted at South By Southwest in March – she railed against energy vampires and that “100 (expletives) can’t tell me how to look when I’m angry.” Or there were the moments from “Stellar” where she takes a long look in the mirror: “I’ve been complacent with the stories/And the lies you tell my heart.”
“I’m a happy person. I just can’t write happy songs.”
That obvious truth came from singer Karen Elson about three-quarters of the way through a Saturday set that was something of a study in contrast: bleak and troubled lyrical characters presented in a sterling shine of pop-folk songwriting.
Elson’s songs are dominantly of two types; with the narrator in the wider world yearning for a lost love, or anticipating dread and certain danger. There’s lots of birds circling in the sky, curtains being drawn and ships changing course – lyrical still life paintings that capture the singer in moments of loss and anticipatory darkness.
Left with just a lyric sheet one might take Elson’s material to be all morose and Nick Cave adjacent, but the musical framework of her songs lets them bathe in her sunbright voice. It’s a combination that wouldn’t work in most instances, and if Elson ever opted to tone down the dread in favor of more oblique or even upbeat themes it’s not out of the question to imagine her appealing to fans the way Jewel took over America two decades ago.
In the class of charismatic young MCs with at least one eye on the tradition of hip-hop’s first generation storytellers he’s an easy valedictorian, and is about to lap everyone else.
Say what you want about the current state of Kanye West’s psyche and mental health, but if the last gift he gives the world is imparting his fellow Chicago lyricist with the confidence and presence to own every square inch of any stage he’s standing on, then his disappearance down the Kardashian/Jenner wormhole will not have been in vain.
From the moment Chance took the Honda stage with his vice grip-tight backing band on Saturday he was in firm command, easily alternating between moments of almost folky storytelling (“Same Drugs”) and the nuanced rhythmic wordplay of “Summer Friends” and “Mixtape.”
And a look around at the many thousands of fans in front of him showed something truly special: a mostly young melting pot of fans having no reservations about celebrating the positivity and message of the God-soaked songs that were being laid on them by a performer blessed with the zeal and command of a veteran Sunday preacher.
It’s hard to say how many of the assembled would mark themselves as believers beyond bouncing and singing along to the messages being delivered by the young Grammy winner. And maybe that’s not the point.
While Chance The Rapper’s enthusiastic spirituality is certainly a foundation of the better world message that predominates his songs, he’s ultimately presenting himself as an on ramp for listeners to look inward and reflect and grow the best parts of themselves to the rest of the world.
So while God is there, it’s the young and gifted MC who is leading the walk he’s taking with his listeners.
This is an odd dynamic in otherwise secular music, and to see an unapologetically spiritual performer flourishing and thriving in terms of audience buy-in can seem… if not jarring then at least eye opening.
To those for whom hip-hop is more often a confrontational and occasionally overtly political venture – present company included – Chance’s many religious invocations in the course of sterling pop songs can become stumbling blocks for the uninitiated listener. This is not a bad thing, but it’s a far different flavor from what is the norm on a music festival headliner stage.
Jessie Chatham said her day at the Austin City Limits Music Festival still would be a good one if she didn’t get a pair of T-shirts autographed by teen pop star Grace VanderWaal, but it’d definitely be a bonus for the 14-year-old Austin resident.
From her spot in line about 60 yards back from the Waterloo Records autograph tent, she didn’t know what her chances were.
“I already got to see her play today, so it’s OK if that’s all that happens,” said Chatham, who came to the festival with her mother, Leslie, on Saturday specifically to see the “America’s Got Talent” winner play an early afternoon set on the HomeAway stage. “I have no idea what I’ll say if I get to meet her. I just think she’s so genuine with her songs.”
Organizers at the autograph tent said VanderWaal’s hour-long session was expected to draw the largest crowd of the day, with many of the thousands who saw her perform migrating into the quickly growing line for a chance to get a quick “hello” and have merchandise autographed.
While VanderWaal’s fans were queueing up, Austin electropop duo Missio were enjoying their time with a procession of fans who came to say hello and get albums, shirts and more signed.
Instrumentalist and backing vocalist David Butler said taking part in autograph and meet-and-greet sessions give the pair a chance to hear how their music has impacted listeners.
“There’s lots of dark things in our music and we’re saying here’s what we struggle in our own lives,” he said. “Lots of the fans come to talk about how the music has affected them and the stuff they struggle with, and maybe we help them continue walking down the path of keeping up with their sobriety or something like that.”
Vocalist Matthew Brue said he looks forward to shaking hands and putting a human face to fans he’s built rapport with on social media.
“It’s cool to put a face with a Twitter handle and see friendships formed by seeing people all the time in little moments like that,” he said. “In the world we lived in there used to be a line where the artist was untouchable. Now nothing is off limits and your entire life is out there. Music is the doorway and it lets people into what inspires someone.”
Back in line for VanderWaal, Arlington residents Scott and Melissa Spencer waited with their daughter, Sophia, 10, for a chance to get a poster signed.
The family had had a teary moment together during VanderWaal’s song “You Don’t Know My Name” at the end of her set and were looking forward to Sophia getting a chance to meet her musical hero, if only for a moment.
“This is all for her,” Scott Spencer said as Sophia clutched her rolled-up poster and waited for the singer to arrive and start greeting fans. “It’s great that we can enjoy music together that we both enjoy. We’re also going to see Tash (Sultana), Glass Animals and Red Hot Chili Peppers together tonight.”
Thursday (Oct. 12) might be the sixth birthday for Spirit Lake, Iowa, resident Garrett Goodell, but his present came last weekend thanks to singer-and-ukulele star Grace VanderWaal.
During her performance on the HomeAway stage at Austin City Limits Music Festival, VanderWaal took a moment out of her set to sing happy birthday to Goodell, a super fan of the singer since hearing her in January. Goodell, whose parents brought him to Austin specifically to see VanderWaal, has epilepsy and Saerthe-Chotzen Syndrome, which causes premature fusion of some skull bones and can delay development.
“He discovered her on YouTube in January and ever since then all he does is watch her videos all the time,” Garrett’s mother, Tobi Goodell, said Sunday after the concert. “You couldn’t wipe the smile off of his face when he saw her. We first told him about this a month ago and I don’t think it really sunk it for him, that it wouldn’t be her on an iPad.”
The Goodells received VIP passes and were able to meet VanderWaal and her family at the festival.
“She was so down to earth,” Goodell said. “It was a nice thing for Garrett because he got to sing to her and then she got to sing to him. He’s already asked when we can see her again, but it looks like all of her concerts are sold out.”
Goodell was complimentary toward the festival and the family’s experience in general, but the family had to leave shortly after their time with VanderWaal because excessive heat increases the chance of Garrett having a seizure.
Through a publicist, VanderWaal said she was grateful to meet a devoted fan like Garrett.
“Meeting Garrett was so sweet. He was adorable and I couldn’t believe how much he knew about my music. He even has his own Maxi Sloosh!!!! (ukulele). He is a hard-core fan and I’m so glad I got the meet him. He and his family were so kind and sweet. I am so happy I was able to include his special day into my set and spend time with him.”
Of course no one was going to steal the show from Killer Mike or El-P once they took the stage at Austin City Limits Music Festival, but Bruce sure did try.
Bruce was a fan pulled from the crowd about 20 minutes into the set when the MCs saw his sign claiming he could rap Killer Mike’s parts on the Run The Jewels track “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry.” That being no easy feat, the performers decided to let the super fan – wearing a T-shirt with the group’s signature pistol-and-fist imagery – take a turn on the microphone, with the added hurdle that he had to perform without a backing beat to keep the rhythm. And if he slipped even a bit he’d lose the mic and be shown back to he crowd.
But wouldn’t you know it, a minute-long blur of ballerinas and Pontiac Catalinas later, Bruce backed up his brag and won the cheers of the audience and slaps on the back from his apparent heroes.
That crowd-pleasing diversion was about the only pause in the hour-long set that saw the ATL-meets-NYC pairing make yet another argument for them being the best live hip-hop act currently active.
With lyrical flows that regularly exceed 100 words per minute it’d be easy for each rapper’s delivery to turn into a blur of syllables, but the vocal control and movement in timbre and dynamics they put to use constantly adds an important textural variety within songs and individual verses. That helps preserve the inherent bounce that is so crucial to making Run The Jewels a group that stands pretty far apart from its peers.
It’s also part of why next Saturday they’ll become perhaps the most lyrically aggressive and profane rap group to record an episode of the Austin City Limits television show.
One does wonder, even with the show having plenty of lead time for editing purposes, how the show’s producers will manage the bleeps or silences in the audio to obscure objectionable words from the eventual public television broadcast.
Whoever gets that task will need to have a pretty deep knowledge of the lyrical nooks and crannies of the group’s three-album and possibly million-word canon. Hope someone can get them Bruce’s phone number. Seems like he’s up to the task.
For much of Gorillaz’s adventurous and triumphant set Sunday at Austin City Limits Music Festival nearly all the members of singer Damon Albarn’s 13-piece backing band were lit as silhouettes while the vivid animation videos depicting the world’s first “cartoon band” played on the screen behind them.
It was a necessary and effective staging tactic that added separation between Albarn, who is the consistent human face of his creation, and any other human presence involved in the proceedings. But it is also something of a disservice to the players who helped the singer and string of guests put together a musically adventurous and joyous set that at 65 minutes was too brief by about half.
From slow-growing gloom of set opener “M1 A1” it was easily confirmed that what began 16 years ago as an art project between Albarn and animator Jamie Hewlett has evolved into one of the most stylistically adventurous pop/rock acts in modern music.
It was a set where the deceptively intricate and ebullient synth folk of “On Melancholy Hill” could set next to the atmospheric pallor and gloom of “Busted And Blue” without the stylisitic switch feeling too jarring. A light thread of Britpop ran through most of the material, which veered into dub reggae, simple folk, assorted African musics, disco soul and more. As jam-packed with musicianship as the band’s set was, it managed to never reach sensory overload levels.
Rising rap star D.R.A.M., who had performed a few hours earlier on the same stage, joined Albarn for “Andromeda,” joining another half dozen guests vocalists who helped make the stage’s available square footage something of a premium by night’s end. It was also for good effect when Albarn exited the stage for “Strobelite” to let the six backup singers shine, and later his turn at the keyboard let the guest reggae and rap vocalists take the spotlight on “Sex Murder Party.”
And when Albarn and another guest rapper turned the chorus duties on undeniable hit “Clint Eastwood” over to the audience in front of them, it felt natural to have thousands of voices lending a hand to a band where there’s always room for more.
You notice patterns and tendencies when you cover the Red Hot Chili Peppers headlining three music festivals in the space of five years. And it turns out the most illuminating piece of intel comes from singer Anthony Kiedis’ choice in head gear.
When the band headlined Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2012 Kiedis took the stage wearing a black-and-white, trucker-style hat for the hardcore punk band Off!, which at the time seemed apt since that young Los Angeles band had plenty of buzz and it made sense that the veteran rocker would want to align himself with a newer, hip act.
The hat got tossed into the crowd early in that set, so it was hard to not notice nine months later when the band headlined the Orion Festival in Detroit that Kiedis had another new white and black Off! hat on his head to start off that show as well. And, just like in 2012, that hat found its way onto an audience member’s head fairly quickly.
Fast forward to four years later and, sure enough, when Kiedis joined bandmates Flea, Chad Smith and Josh Klinghoffer on stage for their Saturday night headliner set the singer had yet another sterling new Off! hat atop his head that was turned backward by second song “Dani California” and tossed into the crowd by the next song.
From this we learn a couple things.
First, that somewhere in the greater Los Angeles area the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers almost certainly has warehouse space solely dedicated to the storage of perhaps hundreds of mesh hats from a punk band that at this point hasn’t been active in three years.
Second, that for all the freaky style-y, party guy personas the band’s core members have cultivated over their more than 30 years together, there’s a veteran performer calculation going on with each of them to maximize their connection with an audience for whom their string of alternative rock hits represent something close to a lifetime soundtrack.
That is not necessarily a bad thing. It certainly does strip away some of the romanticism and appearance of spontaneity that fans and those in show business love to project onto artists. But it also shows the care and attention that goes into making a 90-plus-minute performance feel like far more than live band karaoke.
Saturday’s set featured plenty of other moments that illustrated how carefully the band constructed the show, which was heavier than normal on deep album cuts and material from its most-recent album “The Getaway,” ie, the one that not many people have bought or listened to.
That meant adding in new looks and variety amidst the more unfamiliar material to keep the attention of the many thousands gathered in front of them for their 95 minutes on stage. A series of nearly a dozen short instrumental explorations between various combinations of Flea, Smith and Klinghoffer during song breaks gave the audience a chance to breathe and refocus their attention on the players. Whether they were short and loud or longer and sparse – as was a nearly four-minute bass/guitar interlude that saw Flea and Klinghoffer pushing and playing of each other expertly – these breaks became their own part of the show, and also at up nearly 20 minutes of set time.
Another new look came with the addition of keyboards, an auxiliary percussionist and even a second bass player on “Go Robot,” which saw the stage packed with seven members in a marked contrast to much of the band’s history as a lean four-man funk/punk powerhouse. And having Klinghoffer open the encore solo for an emotional playing of Tom Petty’s “A Face In The Crowd” was a move that was both sincere and savvy.
Of course a near riot would’ve ensued without running through a portion of the band’s somewhat tough to fathom string of hits, some of which have shifted in color and tone through decades of life performance. That meant “Soul To Squeeze” felt more foreboding instead of melancholy, “Suck My Kiss” featured more of a smooth groove instead of its normal staccato stomp and set closer “Give It Away” felt a half beat slower and more deliberate, perhaps in part to let Kiedis exercise better vocal control and preservation.
Even with minor alterations those songs and other well-known favorites did their job and then some, with the band adjusting its pace and power throughout to keep monotony from ever coming close to setting in. Cleary, these guys are professionals when it comes to getting a crowd in the palm of their hands.
And if that meant another Off! hat making a brief appearance near the end of the night before quickly meeting the same fate as its early show counterpart – all so Kiedis could shamelessly drop an “Austin, my hats off to you” line on the crowd – well, there’s a reason these guys have been on top for as long as they have.
Let’s hear it for thoroughly professional rock stars keeping it together on the second acts of their careers. Crowds at Austin City Limits Music Festival got a sample of that dynamic Saturday afternoon when the No Doubt members not named Gwen Stefani took the stage with AFI front man Davey Havok as the sort-of punk rock supergroup Dreamcar.
At first the stylings of the members’ principle bands’ music would seem to make the pairing something of an oil and water scenario. After all, No Doubt ruled the late ‘90s with a playful brand of ska-punk-pop and AFI’s borderline horror punk beginnings gave them a hoe among hardcore punk fans.
But No Doubt gradually adopted a healthy new wave streak as the years wore on, while Havok adopted plenty of glam tendencies during the end of the second Bush administration. Those styles are where Dreamcar lives creatively, employing punk energy with plenty of pop bounce and new wave sheen.
The key to all of it was Havok, who is a charismatic and singular singer at this point in his career, projecting his vocals with every ounce of sweaty energy he can muster. Lyrically he’s still firmly rooted in borderline macabre and romantic torment, but with the years behind him framing the songs as looks at past defeats, rather than current frustrations.
The clear highlight came on “All Of The Dead Girls,” which rode a bouncy and upbeat rhythm from guitarist Tom Dumont and bassist Tony Kanal while Havok basked in the confidence that “All the dead girls love me.”
Another high point: Havok, having sweated through his turquoise dress shirt and suit jacket, leading the band on a sizzling and high-energy cover of David Bowie’s “Suffragette City” that came off as a sincere appreciation without trying to reinvent the original’s compositional greatness. It was a sort of snapshot that perfectly captures this mostly new and uncertain musical venture; classic glam rock greatness propelled forward at high speed. Here’s to hoping there’s more where that came from.